8 Aug 2008

Beijing sealed off before opening ceremony

5:30 pm on 8 August 2008

Central Beijing was sealed off on Friday afternoon as China nervously prepares for the opening of the Olympic Games.

A Radio New Zealand Games correspondent said Tiananmen Square was closed to the public. Streets teaming with thousands of people and cars earlier in the day are now completely quiet.

Security forces came through hours before the opening ceremony to clear people and media off the streets.

Some media have been allowed back, but Radio New Zealand's reporter at the scene says he was under close scrutiny from security forces.

China will celebrate its ancient past and modern power when the Games open at 8pm local time, knowing the world's eyes are on it and keen to present the perfect postcard image.

The opening ceremony is the culmination of seven years of hard work that reshaped the capital, and sets the seal on a sustained economic boom that has resulted in China's emergence as a new superpower.

Fifteen thousand performers and 29,000 fireworks will give the Games a sparkling start. Film director Zhang Yimou was given the task of condensing 5000 years of Chinese history into one show.

Guests in the main head-turning "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium will include United States President George Bush, who flew in straight after making some of his bluntest criticism on human rights during a speech in Bangkok, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Governor-General Anand Satyanand will attend, along with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

However, Britain's Gordon Brown, the head of the United Nations, Ban-ki Moon, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be at the opening.

Displaying its new economic clout, China has spent $US43 billion on the Games. About $US100 million, twice the 2004 Athens bill, has gone on "big bang" opening and closing ceremonies.

The elements, though, have proved stubbornly hard to master. Authorities have closed factories and pulled millions of cars off the road, but smog and haze enveloped the capital on Friday morning - obscuring views of the futuristic skyline.

It begins at 8pm local time (midnight NZT) on the eighth day of the eighth month - the number symbolises fortune in China - before an estimated global audience of one billion.

Protests continue

Earlier in the day, foreign activists issued an on-air challenge to the host city with a pirate broadcast, calling for freeing of political prisoners and lifting of censorship.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said China's attempts to control the media "would never succeed". Their words were often drowned out by a local official broadcast.

Small groups of foreign protesters have also popped up in Beijing this week, but have been whisked off quickly by police forming part of a 100,000-strong security force.

Suspected Islamic separatists killed 16 policemen in western China on Monday, and on Thursday a little-known Islamist group issued an internet threat to the Games.

A video dated 1 August carried pictures of the Beijing Olympics logo in flames and a speaker holding an AK-47 assault rifle and wearing a face mask, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a US- based firm that monitor statements from militants.

In Hong Kong, a lone protester unfurled banners on the largest suspension bridge on Friday calling for human rights.

Flag bearers

The best-known face of Chinese sport, NBA basketball player Yao Ming, will lead his team at the opening ceremony.

But in a move that could embarrass both China and Sudan, US athletes chose former Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong, a victim of government-sponsored Arab militias in the south who fled at the age of six in 1991, to carry their flag around the track.

China is a big oil investor and arms seller in Sudan, and global campaigners blame it for failing to pressure Khartoum to end the conflict in its western region of Darfur.

Unfortunately for the Olympic ideal of global harmony, the two Koreas failed to agree to march at the opening as a unified team even though they managed that in 2004 and 2000.

Rowing medal hopeful Mahe Drysdale will carry the New Zealand flag and will be joined by about 100 team members.